Once upon a time (which is how all the best stories start), there was a king named Dionysius (not to be confused with the partying demi-god Dionysius). Kings generally have dudes hanging around them and this king was no exception to the Dude-rule. And one of the more suck-up-to-the-king types was named Damocles.
One day (which is related to once upon a time), Damocles was in a particularly sucky-up mood and was therefore sucking up, telling Dionysius (the King) how fortunate he was, how wonderful it was to be such a great man of such great power, so surrounded by magnificence (and so on and so forth). That particular day (which is also related to once upon a time), the king had had Enough.
So the king asked if Damocles wanted to trade places. Damocles (have you figured out he wasn’t the brightest banana in the bunch?) thought this was a dandy idea and eagerly accepted the king’s offer.
Damocles was dressed in the king’s finery and surrounded with all sorts of luxuries and extravagances. And Damocles thought life was just peachy keen indeed.
Until he happened to glance up.
You see, while kings get the good stuff (they get the centers of the meat, cushions on their seat, houses on the street where it’s sunny—extra points if you get the reference), they also have to worry about people who want their job. Think Julius Caesar/Ides of March. Because back in the day of Dionysius and Damocles there weren’t Secret Service dudes around to open the front door of the castle for assassins, so assassins had to be much sneakier about things. And sneakier assassins mean kings have to pay attention.
Dionysius wanted Damocles to understand the possibility of imminent danger, so arranged to have a huge sword hung over the throne held by a single hair from a horse’s tail.
Have you ever had a huge sword hanging over your head? Probably not, so let me fill you in. It can be a bit unsettling. And by “a bit” I mean “very.” And if that sword were being held by only one hair from a horse’s tail, it would be extremely unsettling. You might even consider yourself a horse’s ass (near the source of said tail) for getting yourself in that particular situation.
Do you know what you do when there is a sword hanging over your head, tied none too securely with a single hair from a horse’s tail? You glance up. Frequently. You are unable to enjoy the luxuries, the food, the music, or the beautiful maidens around you. Then you glance up more frequently. Your heart begins to pound. You stomach begins to knot. And finally you beg your kind and generous king to take back the crown and the position for Pete’s sake!
Lesson learned: with great fortune and power you get a side helping of anxiety and peril.
And that, my darling, is the story of the Sword of Damocles.